January 27, 2019

“Gathered around God’s Word”

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

The overarching theme in most of this morning’s scripture readings is the scriptures themselves. In particular, it is the question of how we use and interpret the scriptures.

The psalmist begins by making it clear that the scriptures are of utmost importance for God’s people. Of course, from the psalmist’s perspective, at least 500 to maybe 1000 years before the birth of Jesus, the scriptures consisted of the Law of Moses, perhaps as gathered together into the Torah — the rough equivalent of the first five books of our Bibles today.

The psalmist declares that the Law of the Lord is perfect. God’s decrees and precepts and ordinances are sure, and right, and true altogether. He thinks very highly of these texts and speaks of them with utmost respect and admiration and praise. And it’s not only that God’s commandments are true and right from the perspective of a wise and powerful God. The psalmist is arguing that they are actually useful for those who might read and pay attention to them.

God’s laws revive the soul, the psalmist claims. God’s decrees make the reader wise. Paying attention to God’s precepts and commandments brings joy to your heart and light (or understanding) to your eyes. The writer of this psalm feels so strongly about God’s Word that he hungers for it more than rich food or great wealth. It is the greatest gift of all.

It was during my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph that I first remember encountering Christians who seemed to demonstrate that kind of hunger for reading the Bible. It is, of course, entirely possible that many of the people in the Presbyterian church where I grew up were also reading the Bible voraciously, but I don’t remember being aware of that.

When I met some of the Christians on campus, what I noticed first was how many of them carried Bibles around with them. They usually bought nice zippered book covers for them, and filled their Bibles with book marks and notes, highlighting their favourite passages and making copious notes in the margins.

They talked a lot about having “quiet times” or “doing devotions” – a daily practice they encouraged of taking time to read scripture, to reflect, and to pray. And they got together to study the scriptures a lot too. There were Bible studies in the Christian Clubs’ office, in library study rooms, and even in residence rooms.

As I went through my university years, I discovered that the brand of Christianity I was encountering was a little too exclusive and much too literal in its interpretation of scripture for me. And yet, I learned a great deal from my Christian friends at that time. I was inspired by their commitment to prayer, and I caught a bit of their deep reverence for the scriptures.

In more recent years, I’ve been spending less time with evangelical Christians, and more time with Roman Catholic Christians. And though I don’t know many Catholics who walk around with their Bibles in tow, I have also been inspired by the deep respect for scripture that I have witnessed in the Catholic Church.

As worship begins, a procession enters the church, including a cross-bearer, a candle-bearer, and one of the readers holding the scriptures up high above them, followed by the priest. The readers of scripture are called “proclaimers,” emphasizing their important task of proclaiming God’s Holy Word in the assembly of the people.

Great care is often taken to prepare for that proclamation, and the words are read clearly and not too quickly. When the reading ends with “The Word of the Lord” and the people respond, “Thanks be to God” there is a moment of silent reflection, before going on to the next reading.

Our text this morning from the book of Nehemiah comes from the time after the exile in Babylon, when many groups of Israelites had begun to make their way back to Judah and Jerusalem. Nehemiah, for whom the book is named, was a leader in Jerusalem at that time.

He had been working for King Artaxerxes of Babylon, and he got the king’s permission to go back to Jerusalem with his people, where he supervised the massive task of rebuilding. Ezra, the other main character in our reading, was a priest and scribe of prominence at that time.

Just before our text, in chapter 7, the author gives us a great long list of the exiles who have returned home to Jerusalem, and he writes about how they are getting settled once again in their homeland. And then, an important event takes place — the public proclamation of the book of the Law of Moses (or the Torah).

The people all gather together — men and women, and everyone old enough to understand. And from early in the morning until midday (probably about six hours, or so) Ezra reads from God’s Law. [Now aren’t you glad that our church services aren’t that long?]

But what were the people doing during all those hours of reading? Sleeping? Talking among themselves? Minds wandering, and wondering when it would be over? No. They were actually paying attention!

It says, “… and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” They watched as Ezra opened the book, and they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord. These people of God were re-discovering their faith within the city of God’s promise. In participating in that proclamation, in paying attention, and in seeking to understand and to apply it to their lives, they were making a meaningful statement about what they believed about God, about themselves, and about their relationship with God. They trusted that God would speak to them through those words, and that they would grow in wisdom and knowledge and holiness, as they learned to understand and to live by them.

Those of you who have spent some time reading sections of the Bible or engaging in a Bible study (either alone or in a small group), have likely discovered that understanding the scriptures is not always as straightforward as we might hope. That’s why we need to study the scriptures together, to read commentaries and others’ reflections on them, and to learn about the context and circumstances surrounding the text that we are trying to understand.

From the book of Nehemiah we hear, “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” But even on that day in Jerusalem, it was not simply a matter of reading it and everyone understanding. One commentator suggests that Ezra was reading, paragraph by paragraph, while 13 other Levites circulated among the people, explaining things and answering questions — like a giant Bible study.

From the roots of our particular church tradition in the 16th century reformation, the reading and interpretation of scripture has been an important value. At a time when most people did not know how to read at all, and when the scriptures were interpreted only by the clergy, the reformers worked to make the Bible available to everyone. Translations into the languages of the people, reading classes, and Bible classes, transformed the faith experiences of Christians for centuries to come, as more and more people gained access to God’s Holy Word.

Within the Presbyterian Church today, we continue that emphasis on the reading and interpretation of scripture. Our future clergy take more biblical courses than most seminarians in other churches do, and we are still required to study one of the original languages (either Greek or Hebrew). And with a strong emphasis on the importance of preaching, we try to retain the discipline of preaching on the biblical texts, even choosing to focus on the Old Testament texts some of the time.

As you know, this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is a time when we both celebrate our unity in Christ and pray for an end to the divisions that still separate us. I cannot help but be thankful today, as I think about the Word of God, for the values and practices around scripture that I have learned from my evangelical and Catholic friends. And I am also thankful, that as we Presbyterians participate in the ecumenical community of the wider Christian Church, that we also have something to offer when it comes to reading and interpreting scripture.

Many people have used this phrase, but I think it’s a good description of our church’s position on the Bible. We read the bible seriously, but not literally. In “Living Faith” our church’s statement of Christian belief, it is clear that we read the bible seriously — that we have the utmost respect and reverence for God’s Word to us in scripture:

5.1 The Bible has been given to us
by the inspiration of God
to be the rule of faith and life.
It is the standard of all doctrine
by which we must test any word that comes to us
from church, world, or inner experience.
We subject to its judgment
all we believe and do.
Through the Scriptures
the church is bound only to Jesus Christ its King and Head.
He is the living Word of God
to whom the written word bears witness.

A few paragraphs later, “Living Faith” emphasizes that though we read the Bible seriously, its meaning is not always completely self-evident. It requires interpretation:

5.4 The Bible is to be understood in the light
of the revelation of God’s work in Christ.
The writing of the Bible was conditioned
by the language, thought,
and setting of its time.
The Bible must be read in its historical context.
We interpret Scripture
as we compare passages,
seeing the two Testaments in light of each other,
and listening to commentators past and present.
Relying on the Holy Spirit,
we seek the application of God’s word for our time.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he was trying to address the problems of conflict and division within the Christian Church at Corinth. Very much like the church today, the Corinthians were divided from each other, with various groups looking to different leaders for guidance and direction. In the section of chapter 12 that we heard this morning, Paul describes the church using the metaphor of a body:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

But even as Paul emphasizes the unity that we have through the one Spirit of God, he also seems to celebrate the diversity within the church. A body doesn’t work if all its parts are feet, or all its parts are ears. No, God has arranged all the parts with their unique gifts and functions to work together as one body.

I love the part where the body parts seem to be speaking to each other in Paul’s description. He says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

The good news for all the churches and for all the people of the world is that we belong to God. We have been created in God’s good image to be members of the body of Christ. God loves us, and calls us to live with love and purpose in the world. And although we often fail to live in the loving ways that God desires for us, God is determined not to give up on us. God loves us so much that he sent Jesus into the world to live among us, to show us what love is, and to love us so intently and so fully that he would even die rather than give up on loving us.

That is just a ‘nut shell’ summary of the good news of God that we find in the Bible. The details are sometimes more complicated, and often even more wonderful when we take the time to read, to study, to interpret, and to learn day-by-day to live by God’s Word. And the fact is, that we do need one another. We need the gifts and strengths of the many church traditions, and we need the contributions of each member of the Christian community, as we seek to interpret and to understand God’s Word for us today.

May our souls be revived, may our hearts rejoice, and our eyes be enlightened, as together, we continue to read and interpret the scriptures. Amen.